International Catholic University


Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

Chapter VIII -- Other Modernists

Several other people played some role in the movement.

The most important of these was Maurice Blondel, a lay philosopher who as young man in 1893 wrote his major work, Action, which is still influential.

His use of the term "action" was not immediately clear, and for over a century there has been philosophical and theological discussion of it. Like Von Hugel, Blondel began with the human sense of transcendence, an awareness of something beyond human experience. However, such striving is not enough, in that it confines people to purely human capabilities.

Blondel believed that evidences of transcendence lie everywhere in the universe, waiting to be apprehended by human beings, and he used the term "immanence" to indicate the presence of the transcendent within finite reality. "Action" then consists in some process by which the human soul interacts with these ubiquitous signs of transcendence. It involves intellectual belief but goes beyond that in implicating the totality of the human person.

Perhaps the most controversial of Blondel's ideas was his claim that "the supernatural" is really natural, in that evidences of the transcendent are indeed found everywhere in creation. His work has sometimes been held in suspicion because of the fear that he denied the reality, or the necessity, of divine grace and reduced religion to a natural phenomenon.

Like the other Modernists, Blondel rejected Scholastic theology and philosophy, which he dismissed as "extrinsicism," meaning that it did not arise naturally from human experience but was imposed from without as an obligation.

Also like some Modernists, he had a mystical view of the Church as a "holy community," transcending the formal, structured Church. It is living spiritual tradition, which at its best gathers together in an intense away all the manifestations of transcendence in the universe.

When Modernism was condemned in 1907, both Blondel and his friend Lucien Laberthonierre (below), after considerable anguish, announced their acceptance of the encyclicals, on the grounds that they themselves did not hold any of the condemned propositions. Blondel lived longer than any other figure of the Modernist movement, dying in 1949.

Henri Bremond was a French Jesuit who became a specialist in the history of spirituality, especially the rich French school of the seventeenth century, which included St. Francis DeSales, St. Vincent DePaul, and others. He too was anti-Scholastic and saw spirituality as an alternative to Scholasticism. In his view spirituality is lived faith, as opposed to desiccated dogma, and he saw the study of spirituality as a way of evading the demands of Scholastic orthodoxy without explicitly denying them. Thus the real Tradition of the Church is found not in dogmas but in the lives of saints.

Often in tension with his superiors, Bremond too left the Society of Jesus and became a secular priest. Disregarding the fact that Tyrrell had been excommunicated, Bremond officiated at his fellow ex-Jesuit's funeral.

Laberthonniere was a French priest of the Oratory who also found formal dogma spiritually unsatisfying and proposed that all dogmas be considered true insofar as they are symbolic expressions of moral truths.

Maude Petre was an English woman who for a time belonged to rather obscure religious order. She contributed nothing of substance to Modernist ideas, but she was a close friend of Tyrrell and, like Von Hugel, served as a point of contact for the various members of the Movement.

Since liberal biblical criticism played such a crucial role in Catholic Modernism, the Church's attitude toward Scripture was an especially acute issue at the time. In 1894, Pope Leo XIII issued Providentissimus Deus ("most provident God"), affirming in principle the legitimacy of biblical studies, albeit as pursued in a spirit of faith, and in 1903 he established the Pontifical Biblical Commission to encourage and oversee those studies.

Marie-Joseph LaGrange was a Dominican biblical scholar who established the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem as the center of Catholic studies. Although sometimes considered a Modernist, he kept a certain distance from others in the movement.

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